This story is the first in a three-part series about Brown athletics.
In The Herald’s own “Completely Unofficial Guide to Brown,” first-years are given an A-Z listing of Brown-related terms to know. The only term related to Brown athletics is “stadium,” with the description: “It’s over a mile away. This would be a huge pain if anyone besides alums and the Brown Band went to football games.”
It is hardly a secret that sports are generally not central to student life at top-tier academic institutions like Ivy League schools, but the lack of student interest in athletics at Brown is a nearly cultural phenomenon.
According to The Herald’s spring poll, 37.1 percent of students have never attended a Brown athletic event in its entirety or close to its entirety. An additional 20.3 percent said they do so only once a year.
Of Brown’s 38 varsity sports, many are not traditionally regarded as spectator sports. But Brown does field teams in sports thought to be most popular nationally: football, baseball and basketball, along with lacrosse and ice hockey — sports with a large following in the New England area. One might expect these sports to garner a crowd, even at an Ivy League school.
But national popularity does not guarantee interest in Brown teams at all.
Brown Stadium, where the football team plays its home games, has a capacity of 20,000. In five home games during the 2015 season, the average attendance was 4,822, according to the official site of Brown athletics.
Though on average the stadium was filled to less than a quarter of its capacity, Athletics Director Jack Hayes said that attendance this year was the best in his four years at the school.
“We’re a school that has students with a wide range of interests,” he said. “As a result, there’s going to be students who are far more interested in other things on campus.”
The trend has persisted for a long time, said Digit Murphy, former head coach of the women’s hockey program during its heyday in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Murphy also attended Cornell, playing hockey over the course of her four years.
“In general, Brown was the least interested in sports of the Ivies that I had ever been a part of,” she said. “Athletics was one of the least things on the students’ mind, and of the faculty and community.”
For Jordan Ferguson ’17, playing in front of small crowds and empty seats was something of a shock at first. The junior defensive back grew up in football-crazed Southern California, routinely playing high school games in front of 8,000 people. But throughout his career on a Brown team that has been fairly successful — relative to other teams here — he grew accustomed to a modest crowd at home games.
“When I first got here as a freshman, it was pretty frustrating,” Ferguson said. “Ultimately, my teammates are there, and parents come. And that became enough for me.”
Given its location, no student is simply going to stumble upon a game at Brown Stadium. But attendance numbers remain low across the spectrum of sports represented at Brown, even for teams with more home games located closer to campus. The Brown men’s hockey team averaged 1,097 fans over 13 home games in the 2015-2016 season — a little over one-third of the maximum capacity of 3,100 at Meehan Auditorium.
Even then, official attendance numbers could be misleadingly high. Brown athletics often entices students to attend events with gimmicks such as free t-shirt giveaways. Students who show up to grab free gear are counted in attendance figures as they walk in, but many less passionate spectators who come out for such giveaways may leave after a small portion of the game, a phenomenon regular attendees have observed.
Athlete, non-athlete divide
Trying to narrow down the factors that engender students’ apathy for their sports teams proves difficult. But many athletes speak about an ever-present rift between athletes and non-athletes on campus that may lie at the heart of modest attendance numbers. The prevalence of the division comes in part from academic-related stigma, said women’s hockey captain Alli Rolandelli ’16.
“I think there’s a big divide in the athlete crew and the non-athlete crew at Brown,” she said. “There’s some perception that athletes aren’t as smart or aren’t as deserving” of admission to Brown.
Sarah Lucenti ’17, who was recently named a co-captain of the volleyball team, said that non-athletes may not relate personally to athletes.
“It’s like a disconnect between everyone else knowing how hard we work and how important these games are to us, and athletes get that,” she said. “I think it’s getting better in a lot of ways, but I think that most support comes from other athletes.”
The proportion of athletes in the stands compared to non-athletes further exemplifies segregation within student culture on campus. Of the 11.4 percent of students who reported attending athletic events once a week or more often, 54 percent are varsity athletes themselves. Varsity athletes make up only 12.6 percent of the poll’s sample population.
“As an athlete, we know the time and commitment that goes into these things, and I think it makes it way more enjoyable to go and watch them put in that work,” Rolandelli said.
A trend of reciprocal attendance also contributes to athlete support at events, Ferguson said. “Other athletes come and support us as football players, so I like to return the favor,” he said. “I’m also a big believer in ‘You have to be the change you want to see,’ so if I want people to actually show up to the games, I can’t be one of the people not showing up.”
A fan’s impact
This year’s men’s lacrosse team is a case study that demonstrates the potential for true fan support at Brown. The 12-1 Bears have been ranked in the top 10 nationally for the bulk of this season, recently taking down then-No.1 Yale in front of a record crowd of 3,430 at Stevenson-Pincince Field April 16. Fueled by Spring Weekend adrenaline, students poured out onto the field to celebrate as the game went final; it was the display of school spirit that some — athlete and non-athlete — long to see at Brown.
“That was a University event,” Hayes said, who approved of students rushing the field after the win. “We would all like events to be like that. Realistically, I think the stars aligned that day.”
Alec Tulett ’17, starting defenseman for men’s lacrosse, said the Yale game was “the best game (he’s) ever played in.”
The crowd “made it a great atmosphere for the fans, the players and the coaches. Everyone had a great time,” he said. “That game felt like a national championship, and your play elevates to that level,” he said.
Any athlete would be quick to tout the positive effect of having fans in the stands — something Brown athletes in certain sports may benefit from more than others.
Women’s rugby, Brown’s newest varsity sport, plays its home games at the Berylson Family Fields, located adjacent to Brown Stadium. The national and school-wide popularity of rugby pales in comparison to a sport like football, but even the small crowd at rugby games makes a huge difference, said co-captain Oksana Goretaya ’17.
“Knowing that someone’s there to support you, it makes all the difference,” she said. “It’s always exciting to have people watch you play. It puts a little bit more pressure on you, but I think that it’s a positive pressure.”
Though she has grown accustomed to the small crowds at volleyball games, Lucenti said the team feeds off fan presence in the stands.
“It’s a huge help,” she said. “Sometimes when you need that extra boost, it’s really nice to have that.”
There is a reason men’s lacrosse is attracting fans this season like no other Brown sport: They win. With the athletes’ admitted cognizance of the crowd and its potential effect on team attitude or energy, a vicious cycle reveals itself for losing teams.
At other schools, “you’ll see a major program where people are interested no matter if the team is winning or losing,” Ferguson said. “But at Brown, the culture is more: If Brown is winning, then the student population is more invested than they otherwise would be.”
Murphy recalled that support for the 2001-2002 women’s hockey team that went 25-8-2 and lost in the national championship game was widespread at Brown, even without the luxury of marketing on social media. As the 10th winningest coach in NCAA women’s hockey history, Murphy has seen first-hand what drives attendance and overall support for athletic teams.
“This is about winning,” she said. “Let’s face it: People love winners.” Since the Murphy years, the women’s hockey program has declined from a perennial winner to a team fighting to avoid last place in the Ivy League standings year in, year out — a trend that current Head Coach Bob Kenneally '90 is trying to reverse.
“In the last 10 years, quite honestly, our teams haven’t been as successful as many department personnel, student-athletes and alumni would like us to be,” Kenneally said.
It is a pattern that has not been unique to one single sport, but is rather representative of Brown athletics as a whole — which may be why attendance numbers and student interest in athletics continue to underwhelm.